Valleys can be quite beautiful. I remember hiking in the Sawtooths in Idaho a few years ago with a friend and there were steep striking valleys with trout-filled streams funneling through epic slopes on either side.
While in Ecuador nearly 20 years ago I remember hiking through the picturesque foothills around one of the tallest active volcanos in the world, Cotapaxi. In that case, hiking through the valley was a beautiful approach to a difficult and strenuous climb.
But currently, the valley we are experiencing is one of death, sorrow, and mourning. The Psalmist refers to the valley of the shadow of death in the 23rd psalm which could be a metaphor for any sort of pain, adversity, gloom, or doom. Debbie and I are experiencing this valley due to what she has often referred to as “stupid cancer!” Both my older brother and my mother-in-law were diagnosed with some aggressive cancers back in July. My older brother, Bill, died December 10, 2018. My amazing mother-in-law, Alice, just died a few days ago…January 9, 2019.
That is a lot of loss to experience in such a brief time. And if you factor in the unexpected death of Deb’s older sister in February 2015 at the age of 44, it just compounds the grief. Perhaps you have gone through a similar “valley” of death’s shadow. Perhaps you have been spared the experience of deep loss so far in your journey. Chances are, we all pass through this valley sooner or later.
Even before my brother slipped across the veil of death, Psalm 23 was being reimagined for me. Several times I prayed the Psalm over my brother as he slept or rested or just suffered in silence. Now, what was once a churchy sounding irrelevant passage of scripture (it never seemed very relevant since I had no personal experience with sheep-herding) has become a heart-felt meaningful piece of biblical poetry. It has become almost a daily part of my prayer liturgy (I owe some of that influence to Dallas Willard as well). And I occasionally play this old version by Keith Green which was sung at my brother’s funeral.
Exiting this valley of sorrow and grief will not be a quick, easy process. We just celebrated my mother-in-law’s life yesterday (some call that a funeral). So today is the first day of what some might call our “new normal” and it is tough to figure out life without her, honestly. But we are learning to trust the Good Shepherd…and continue anchoring ourselves to that “hopiest of hopes” I mentioned last time. The encouragement received from so many friends, along with the family that we cling even more tightly to these days, is certainly a big part of what gets us through.
Cancer, death, and grief is a crappy way to start a new year.
We are hoping for much better days ahead. It’s just painful to move forward without these crucial loved ones.
Above all we are clinging to the Hope (elpida) of the resurrection and a future reunion with those we love in the new Creation.
The first time I came across this word was during my undergrad studies when I minored in Biblical languages. I took 4 semesters of New Testament (koine) Greek and elpida, the word for hope, certainly pops up.
Romans 12:12 is one of those places. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, devote yourself to prayer.”
And often this “hope” is a reference to the hope we have in the resurrection. Our hope is in Christ because Christ has conquered death…removing the stinger from the wasp of death so that it is not to be feared.
1 Thessalonians 4:13 encourages, “Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep (in death), so that you will not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
Long after my Greek classes in undergrad and seminary, I encountered this word again…inked onto my older brother’s arm.
I was vaguely aware of a spiritual community Bill was a part of which had suffered the loss of an amazing human being named Mark Palmer. Although I did not know Mark personally, I knew of him through Bill and some others in the “ElpidaCommunity.” (Which is how I referred to it). Over a short span of time, this community had suffered the loss of 4 friends/family members (that I’m aware of). Over the past several years, I’ve gotten to know some in this community a little better, especially Chris Marshall, who has been a great friend to my big brother for well over 15 years now.
When my older brother died a little over 4 weeks ago (after a brief battle with a pulmonary carcinomicsarcoma in his chest from July-December), I drew even closer to this “Elpida Community.” And my “little” brother and I (Jason Bean) got inked in our brother’s memory just a few hours before the funeral.
So, this notion of hope…elpida…continues to be magnified by present-day mourning while longing for the truth of the resurrection.
One of the younger members of this elpidacommunity has the full version of the tattoo on his shoulder and encountered someone not too long ago (who may have been slightly intoxicated) but recognized the Greek word. He asked my friend about the tattoo and Izaac said, “Yeah, it’s a word that means hope.” The older inebriated gentleman with slurred words corrected him. “Oh no man…not just hope…it’s the HOPIESTof hopes.” When Izaac told me that story, I laughed externally but teared up internally. The truth came out of a random dude in a bar who has some history with Greek words in the New Testament. He was obviously guided by the Spirit in that moment to drop some Truth which has now stuck with me. Elpidais not just hope, it’s the HOPIESTof hopes. It’s the hope that we cling to…the hopethat we steady ourselves on as death and grief come against us like strong waves pounding against the rocks of this truth.
And just a few hours ago, we got the news that my mother-in-law died after less than a week in hospice. In less than 6 months, bladder cancer spread to her lungs and then her brain and just now took its final toll on her physical body. But she was a Godly woman who was such a beautiful example of kindness, compassion, spunk, and so many other good qualities. Having known her for more than 25 years now, I am so grateful for her life, her love for my family, and her strong faith. I ache for my kids and my wife as we continue through this shadow-of-death-valley season.
We all need elpida…the hopiestof hopesto help us through!